Do We Want the Conservative Movement to Die?

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My latest Jewish Week column (December 24) discusses the mounting troubles faced by the Conservative movement. I noted that Solomon Schechter schools, many of which are experiencing a declining enrollment and some have closed, are Jewishly superior to nearly all transdenominational Community day schools and that their decline and the more general decline of Conservatism does not bode well for Israel or kiruv activities. I also suggested that Conservatives needed to have a more unified and more vigorously led movement. A Rosh Yeshiva called to say that the column was “a hot potato,” with people wondering why I felt it necessary to give advice to Jews who aren’t observant. Perhaps I shouldn’t be giving such advice. Perhaps it would be better if the Conservatives would move further away from our heritage and ultimately walk away entirely from Jewish life, taking the path already taken by at least half of American Jews.

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25 Responses

  1. Vanity says:

    I think the funniest thing about this discussion is the level of supposed humility that’s really just a clever facade for outright chutzpah. Do any of you actually think that the Reform or Conservative or however many other movements there are (I lose track!) *really care* about your approval or endorsement or lack thereof?

    The irony of the last post is that it attempts to portrary itself as devoid of “chutzpah” and yet the whole post is essentially a bunch of navel-gazing about whether we want the Conservative movement to dissipate.

    Here’s an idea: let’s worry about causing our ego to dissipate. Neither the Conservative nor the Reform (nor whatever other movements there are) care what we think about them, nor do we particularly care about what they think of us. It’s extremely arrogant to think that they do. They are autonomous entities that probably have the same sort of discussions about each other.

    I think Karen has had the only perceptive post so far: more Jews should worry about tikkun olam and maintaining a healthy and proseprous relationship w/ G-d and w/ each other (and such relationships amongst each other, are, ultimately *inter-personal* as opposed to *inter-denominational.) Of course, every Jew has a responsibility to every other Jew, and I don’t wish to mollify that duty, but, again, strides in in-reach (or out-reach, or however you want to look at it) are *not* made on the denominational level, but rather on the personal one.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Karen’s question fails to distinguish between human frailty and human ideals. Of course people break the laws. There is no such thing as a human being free of sin, even Moshe or Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon). But even a deliberate violation is a very different thing than endorsing violations — or denying that the laws even exist.

    Those groups not committed to Torah observance want our “hechsher,” or imprimatur, on the concept of three movements (or is it four?). We cannot provide it. They want to talk about “branches” of Judaism, and we talk about the “Tree of Life,” the Torah. There is a delicate line, that each of us involved with those in the non-Orthodox movements has to draw somewhere.

    Would it be better if the Conservative Movement were to dissipate? There are good arguments to be made as far as muddying the waters, which are especially obvious to those of us who have lived among Israelis. There are, on the other hand, Americans living hundreds of miles away from anything that would bring Jews together outside a Conservative or Reform (or Reconstructionist) synagogue. There are hundreds of Jewish children learning from observant teachers in Solomon Schechter schools. But I don’t think we need to answer that question.

    The real question is, should we be telling them how to do a better job? Besides the “chutzpah” factor (we don’t exactly like them telling us what to do), I do feel some discomfort with advising them on how to do a better job, because that implies the sort of endorsement that we need to avoid.

    If I knew the first thing about teaching in or administering a school, and if, given that (non-existent) experience, a Schechter principal were to solicit my advice, I would privately advise him, because he is another Jew and I want to help him do a good job. And, yes, I want the entire movement to be drawn to Torah. Perhaps a more real-world example: I am glad to provide material from which Reform and Conservative Rabbis construct better sermons, because that draws them and their followers to Torah. But I don’t think I would provide public advice in a journal, both because it might be resented, and because it would put that stamp of endorsement on what they are saying and believing now.

  3. Karen Monnich says:

    I may be a bit naive but, is it not the ultimate “job” of the Jews to lead by example? It seems to me that we cannot lead non Jews to peace and all that means, if we are constantly bickering within ourselves. Would it not be better to continue to teach the way of the Torah and even go to the Conservative Shul and explain why you are there up front, rather than fight or ignore those Jews who haven’t found their way? I was taught that only Hashem had the right to make judgement on mankind and particularly on the Jews. He holds us to a higher standard and it is to Him we each have to answer. Is there anyone that can honestly say they never break ANY of the (non temple related)613 laws?
    Thanks for “listening”,

  4. DF says:

    I dont think we should wokr to strengthen the movement as it is. Perhaps some of us should come up with a way to engage the right-wing of the movement in an effort to draw them into Frumkeit organizationally. I am referring here to the well-meaning laity, not the leaders who would probably cause more problems than benefit.

    As far as the issue of withholding legitimacy. In my sense it still works very well and is VERY powerful. What irks the leadership the most is how many folks in their community recognize and believe Torah Judaism to be the real and authentic one. This is only maintained by withholding legitimacy. This in turn is a boon for Kiruv so that those in the C movement who wish for more know precisely where to go.

  5. Michoel says:

    Of course we want the CM to come to an end (I don’t like the word “die” here). There is a Reb Elchanan on Sanhedrin somewhere (I haven’t seen it inside) that says that one who is m’shana a halacha is chaiv meesa. We don’t want Jews to assimilate chas v’shalom, but all means are not justified by the ends. And although I see someone commented above that if he didn’t go to a conservative school he would have gone to a public school, in the long term, more poeple would become frum. The CM creates a lot of confusion and I think they are actually responsible for keeping more reform and unaffiliate Jews from becoming frum. They have the impression that “We’ll the Orthodox say they’re right about halacha but the CM says they’re are right so why should I believe one over the other.” The CM clouds the pictures. If there is one Jew in America that sincerely wants the emes, he has right to not have his vision clouded. We all need to remember, especially kiruv “pros” that Hashem actually runs the world. We have to make efforts, great efforts, but lets not bring down the Torah.

  6. Greg Yaris says:

    With regard to Conservative Judaism (as well as any other denomination other than Orthodoxy), you should read the study prepared by Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz in the 90’s. It shows clearly that any family which is not currently Orthodox is unlikely to have many (or any) Jewish grandchildren. Therefore, it seems to me that the goal should be to encourage/educate as many Jews as possible to be Orthodox. Having said that, encouraging the end of Conservative Judaism doesn’t seem to be consistent with that goal. Any place where Jews congregate, as opposed to not congregating anywhere, is a good thing. Just keep the bottom line in mind – convert them to Orthodoxy, or lose their grandchildren.

  7. Fotheringay-phipps says:

    Along these lines, the issue of lending legitimacy is not about those who are already Conservative. It’s about the people who are not but might drift in that direction.

  8. Fotheringay-phipps says:

    Moish,

    Again, they were two seperate points – no evolution involved. I am sure of what I wrote in the second point, less so about the first. In the first, I suggested that even if there was a net positive – to our way of thinking – we could not do it if it was a prohibited act or something analogous to it. My second point was that even from what we see in terms of survival of Judaism, the advantages of keeping judaism untainted by reform outweigh the (potential) kiruv. Two seperate issues. I’m not so sure publicly exhorting conservatives to do a better job is a prohibited act, so I hedged. But I’m sure that it’s not a good idea, hence the certainty on the second.

  9. Joe Schick says:

    One can decline to give legitimacy to the non-Orthodox movements while also calling on those movements and individuals who identify as members of those movements to improve their observance, send their children to day schools, etc.

  10. In my own admittedly woefully uninformed opinion, I think that “withholding legitimacy” is an outdated means of applying social and communal pressure that is now inaccurately viewed as a desirable end in itself. Once upon a time, the religious world was cohesive and significant enough in itself such that the withholding of recognition could successfully oppose errant theological strains. Now, it just makes people think we’re ornery, and, as Ms. Schmidt’s experience demonstrates, does not preclude attendance at non-halachic services.

  11. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt says:

    The way R Marvin Schick posed the issue is problematic. He wrote “…the general decline of Conservatism does not bode well for Israel or kiruv activities” and suggested “that Conservatives needed to have a more unified and more vigorously led movement.” The issue is not what advice to give or for what to hope. A more productive avenue is to ask what frum Jews should do. For example, when I was asked to addressed our local Conservative synagogue, I first discussed it with our Rav who said that while he could not speak there because of his position, the laity did not have that restriction (a yellow light, proceed with caution response). I went to the Conservative synagogue to arrange a date and time for my lecture and was greeted by some members who said, “Wonderful. We heard you are coming to speak. That means we’re o.k.” At that moment I realized I could not speak. I then had to decide whether to explain why, or to simply postpone the lecture indefinitely (I opted for the latter). I cite this to illustrate the problem of lending legitimacy to non-normative Jewish groups. Let me add that I did redouble my efforts to maintain warm and close relationships with my neighbors who attend the Conservative synagogue, and some of them come to us every Shabbat for cholent & Torah talk.
    Lending legitimacy is a serious problem with R Schick’s approach.

  12. The evolution to which I referred was the shift between the first point’s uncertainty about whether we should do anything that might promote heresy, and the second point’s certainty that we should not.

    Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has qualified the much-quoted pesak of Rav Soloveichik (namely, that one should miss shofar on Rosh Hashana rather than pray in a non-halachic congregation) as not applying where the non-halachic congregation is the only available connection to Torah, tenuous as such connection might be. I would submit that any such encouragement – supporting heresy through allowing/encouraging attendance at heretical places of worship (I’m gagging internally over my language, but that’s for a discussion to take place never), necessarily “supports” heresy.

  13. Fotheringay-Phipps says:

    Where’s Jeeves when I need him?

  14. Jeff Ballabon says:

    MP – in defense of young Barmy – Tuppy Glossop was holding court at the Drones just last night, no more sloshed than one would expect under the circs. and, despite my own having waded more than a bit intrepidly into the third gin and t. of the evening, I distinctly heard his dulcet tones aver that “it is not hard to maintain simultaneously that we should promote monotheism and G-d – based morality to all humanity and that we should not promote specious mutations of Judaism to members of the covenant” or some such equally nauseating rot. I don’t as a rule pay attention to the barside ramblings of childhood pals, but this one just reminded me awfully of that time I won the prize for Scripture knowledge.

  15. Fotheringay-Phipps says:

    Moishe,

    There were two separate points being made here – there’s no “evolution” here. Maybe you can clarify a bit.

    Regardless, your point about Maimonedes (there are several sources who say similar things) is invalid (perhaps I’ve failed to make myself clear, though I don’t think so). I am not saying that all else being equal I would not prefer that Jews remain conservative than become completely assimilated. I am saying it is not something to be achieved at the cost of watering down Judaism (by publicly calling for a stronger Conservative movement, thus undercutting the strength of opposition to their heresies).

    If you find a source in Maimonedes that a Jew may call for a stronger and more unified Christianity or Islam, you’ll be making a valid comparison.

  16. With regard to Fotheringay-Phipps’ evolution from supposing that “(I)t may be that God would prefer that you not do anything to uphold heresy” to the certainty that “(I)t is far better to ensure the true transmission of pure and uncorrupted Judaism than to promote mass appeal of a watered down version”:

    The assertion (Maimonides, I believe, but perhaps someone less burdened by ignorance can help) that the divine purpose behind Christianity and Islam was to propogate monotheism does seem to impute value to a watered-down version of Jewish theology.

  17. Fotheringay-Phipps says:

    I think that kiruv is not the be-all-and-end-all (and that kiruv people sometimes lose sight of this). Two points

    1) Our job is not to make the maximum number of people frum – this is not a political campaign. The objective is to do what God wants. It may well be that God would prefer that you not do anything to uphold heresy, even if your ultimate goal is to increase the number of observant Jews. And if the net result is He has fewer worshippers – well that’s what He wants – it’s not our job to decide what He wants.

    2) It is far better to ensure the true transmission of pure and uncorrupted Judaism than to promote mass appeal of a watered down version. Far better that fewer people are frum but that those frum people be truly frum, than to have a larger number of semi-frum people. To the extent that you support a heretical movement you are undermining your own ideological purity. Not worth it.

    (This is in addition to the quibbling above as to the net result of invigorating Conservatism).

  18. Joe Schick says:

    Heretical or not, would you say it’s better for Jews who affiliate with the Conservative movement to send their kids to a public school, to a community day school with very limited Jewish content, or to a Solomon Schechter day school, which, while far from ideal, does offer a decent Jewish education. Similarly, is it better for Conservatives who light Friday night candles, have a Pesach seder, give to Jewish charities and support Israel to drift off completely and disappear, as is the case under the current trends?

    The idea that masses of non-observant Jews will become frum is a pipe dream. Kiruv, even when successful, works in small numbers.

  19. Fotheringay-Phipps says:

    Before I posted that post I spent a long time deliberating as to whether it was bizarre or barmy before deciding on the former.

    So let’s keep it straight: it’s bizarre – I’m Barmy.

  20. Jeff Ballabon says:

    Would you really say bizarre – or is it perhaps barmy?

  21. Fotheringay-Phipps says:

    It’s difficult to assess the overall impact of a “more unified and more vigorously led [Conservative] movement”. It’s true, as Gil says, that sometimes a Conservative movement will help keep enough of a Jewish identity so that eventually they can become Orthodox. But it’s also possible that the drift from Conservatives – in both directions – would be smaller if the movement was “more unified and more vigorously lead”. And who knows if more Orthodox Jews might drift into Conservatism. It’s all speculative. What’s for certain is that Mr. (Dr.?) Shick is calling for a more unified and vigorously led heretical movement. This is bizarre.

  22. Gil Student says:

    I spent nine years in a Solomon Schechter (K-8). I and just about everyone in my class would have gone to public school otherwise. Now a few of us are frum and, to my knowledge, have beaten the general Jewish public in terms of intermarriage statistics.

    What the Schechter schools need are more frum teachers rather than secular Israelis who moved to America.

    And to Brand, the fight against the Conservative movement is long gone. The movement was once a place for people who grew up Orthodox but did not want all the rules, but that is no longer the case. Times have changed.

  23. David Brand says:

    Marvin,
    As to advising the Conservatives, I think you can tell them whatever you want. You don’t strike me as the type of person who keeps his opinion to himself, anyway. But a bit of history does come to mind when you suggest that if they aren’t Conservative, that they “would move further away.” This was exactly the logic used to defend Traditional shuls and their practice of mixing men and women. The thought at the time was that Traditional shuls were a protection (interesting backward-moving Geder) to prevent people from becoming even less frum. If anything, we learned that making things weaker is not the way to make them stronger.

    Your only offer two possibilities for our Conservative brethren: becoming stronger Conservatives, or losing whatever Yiddishkeit altogether. What about the possibility of reaching out, and asking them to join us? What about showing them the beauty of Torah-true Yiddishkeit?

  24. Joe Schick says:

    I am quite certain that my father’s last sentence is not intended to be taken seriously.

  25. I hope your closing comment was not meant seriously. Regardless of the ideological deficiencies of the Conservative movement, to the extent that the Conservative movement remains a viable source of identity, more Jews remain “Jewish,” which (aside from the presumed value of whatever mitzvos they do, keeps their prospects for teshuva open.

    – Moishe Potemkin